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Freedom to Fail Propels 2nd-Graders to Win, Earning Sarah Szymanski a $25,000 Milken Educator Award

Colorado magnet school teacher helps learning take flight at Soaring Eagles Elementary

December 19, 2018

SANTA MONICA, Calif., — Ironically, failure leads to success in Sarah Szymanski's second grade class at Soaring Eagles Elementary in Colorado Springs, CO, where mistakes are what makes learning possible. By challenging her students at the gifted and talented magnet school, and giving them a safe space to take risks, Szymanski's students further their academic and social emotional goals and exceed district averages in all areas. Szymanski is a master of differentiated instruction and finds ways to ensure that all of her learners' individual learning paths result in meeting or exceeding Colorado's academic standards. A natural leader and a dedicated educator, Szymanski tutors students on her lunch hour and after school to boost struggling students or help advanced students make their next great leap forward.

Yet, it was Szymanski's turn to make a big advance today at a surprise school assembly where she was presented with a Milken Educator Award by Milken Family Foundation Chairman and Co-Founder Lowell Milken and Colorado Commissioner of Education Dr. Katy Anthes. A fired-up Szymanski was named a 2018-19 recipient of the national recognition, which comes with an unrestricted $25,000 cash prize. She is the only Milken Educator Award winner from Colorado this year, and is among the up to 40 honorees for 2018-19.

The Milken Educator Awards, hailed by Teacher magazine as the "Oscars of Teaching," has been opening minds and shaping futures for over 30 years. Research shows teacher quality is the driving in-school factor behind student growth and achievement. The initiative not only aims to reward great teachers, but to celebrate, elevate and activate those innovators in the classroom who are guiding America’s next generation of leaders. Milken Educators believe, "The future belongs to the educated."

A relentless seeker of educational best practices and innovative methods, Szymanski shares the wealth of her knowledge by mentoring new colleagues and student teachers. She is a leader in her classroom, grade, school and district, a go-to source for literacy models and implementation. A gifted communicator who invariably shares her passion, understanding and expertise with parents, students and staff, Szymanski is as fearless and committed to quality education and personal growth as she teaches her students to be.

"Our nation's future is directly tied to great teachers like Sarah Szymanski," said Milken. "She knows that every student deserves a quality education and understands the challenges they face on a daily basis. By targeting their individual strengths and giving them the tools to tackle any problem that may arise, she ensures their success—and ours as well."

"Sarah Szymanski serves as an advocate for both her students and her colleagues," said Anthes. "She is dedicated to improving her practice as an educator, and at the same time she goes out of her way to mentor her fellow teachers and encourage them to be their very best. She is an asset in her school, district and community, and we congratulate her on this well-deserved award."

"Harrison School District is honored that Milken has selected Sarah Szymanski for this award," said Chief Operating Officer Dr. Wendy Birhanzel. "She is a testament to excellence in and out of the classroom. Her content knowledge and curriculum expertise make her a sought-after resource in our district. Sarah is driven to ensure all her students succeed and believe she cares about them. Her impact goes beyond her own classroom, serving as a mentor to district teachers as they hone their own practice. In addition, she partners with families to enable a true village mentality to increase student learning. We are proud to have Sarah Szymanski as part of our Harrison family."

About Milken Educator Sarah Szymanski
Sarah Szymanski and her second graders start each day at Soaring Eagles Elementary in Colorado Springs by reciting aloud a mantra that supports both academic and social-emotional learning goals. The words remind the students that they are cared for and loved at school; that they are going to learn; and that learning sometimes means making mistakes. Szymanski wants her students at the gifted and talented magnet school to stretch themselves and holds high expectations for them as learners and citizens. A skilled differentiator, Szymanski skillfully assesses student performance and strategically designs interventions to address any deficits. She understands Colorado's academic standards and is committed to ensuring that all students master them. The children in Szymanski's class perform because of her ability to engage them and make learning exciting: Her students outperform district averages in all areas, and has been named both a National Blue Ribbon School and a National Title I Distinguished School.

Szymanski is known as a natural leader with an extraordinary ability to advocate for both students and colleagues. She has taught both inclusive and departmentalized classrooms and serves as grade level leader. Szymanski's service on school and district committees includes Math Collaborators, Effectiveness and Results, and the building leadership team. Many visitors to Soaring Eagles stop in Szymanski's classroom to observe her management, community-building and instruction skills.

Szymanski is always looking for ways to increase her effectiveness as an educator and seeks out best practices to deliver quality lessons. She has presented at school and district trainings on literacy models and their implementation. Szymanski goes above and beyond for the Soaring Eagles community, mentoring student teachers and first-year educators and tutoring students during her lunch hour, planning periods and after school. Known to build strong relationships with families, she also works with parents to help them understand the concepts their children are learning in class.

Szymanski earned a bachelor's in elementary education from Pennsylvania State University in 2008.

More information about Szymanski, plus links to photos and a video from today’s assembly, can be found on the Milken Educator Awards website at

Milken Educators are selected in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish. In addition to the $25,000 prize and public recognition, the honor includes membership in the National Milken Educator Network, a group of more than 2,700 top teachers, principals and specialists dedicated to strengthening education.

In addition to participation in the Milken Educator Network, 2018-19 recipients will attend a Milken Educator Forum in New Orleans from March 21-24, 2019. Educators will have the opportunity to network with their new colleagues and hear from state and federal officials about maximizing their leadership roles to advance educator effectiveness.

More than $138 million in funding, including $68 million in individual $25,000 awards, has been devoted to the overall Awards initiative, which includes powerful professional learning opportunities throughout recipients' careers. Many have gone on to earn advanced degrees and be placed in prominent posts and on state and national education committees.

The Awards alternate yearly between elementary and secondary educators. Unlike most teacher recognition programs, the Milken Educator Award is completely unique: Educators cannot apply for this recognition and do not even know they are under consideration. Candidates are sourced through a confidential selection process and then are reviewed by blue ribbon panels appointed by state departments of education. Those most exceptional are recommended for the Award, with final approval by the Milken Family Foundation.

Past recipients have used their Awards to fund their children's education or their own continuing education. Others have financed dream field trips, established scholarships and even funded the adoption of children.

To get regular updates on the surprise Milken Educator Award events, follow and use the #MilkenAward hashtag on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The Milken Educator Awards tour is on social media at,,, and

For more information, visit or call MFF at (310) 570-4772.

About the Milken Educator Awards
The very first Milken Educator Awards were presented by the Milken Family Foundation 31 years ago in 1987. The Awards provide public recognition and individual financial rewards of $25,000 to elementary and secondary school teachers, principals and specialists from around the country who are furthering excellence in education. Recipients are heralded in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish.

Lynne Russo 
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